Books That Scare Me: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

October 31, 2012 Dystopian, Religion, Women's Studies 39

Happy Halloween, Bookworms! Today we’re going to discuss one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book combines several of my biggest fears. First, I have an irrational fear of cult activity. I’m ALL ABOUT freedom of religion… Until your religion tries to take over a government. I also fear those who would take my autonomy. I know that it sounds ridiculous in 2012 to think any American male would seek to take away my right to vote, own property, or… read. Frankly though, that isn’t true the world over.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the USA after a militant Christian group seizes power from the government. Actually, they sort of show up and machine-gun Congress… (I would absolutely not take this book as an attack on Christianity… It’s an attack on theocracy of any kind, but given Atwood’s audience she wisely assumed that biblical references would be most familiar.)  This story is told from the point of view of Offred. Offred was once a typical American woman. She was married with a child and had a career and money of her own. It’s never really explained how it came to be, but it’s strongly implied that something (perhaps radiation?) has rendered a large portion of the female population infertile. Once the cult government takes over, they sift out the “fruitful” females and assign them to “deserving” men as handmaids. Any of you read my review on The Red Tent? The idea behind “handmaids” is Old Testament. Jacob has two official wives, Rachel and Leah. Rachel has trouble conceiving, and sometimes Leah just gets tired of popping out babies. Their solution is to bring on “handmaids” to conceive children in their stead. Like… rent-a-uterus. So the righteous yet infertile women get to have husbands and raise families… But the handmaids are the ones who actually have to birth the children… And suffer through the super creepy copulation ritual Atwood outlines. Gross. (Although, really, it’s sad for the “righteous” women too. They sure as heck aren’t fond of the copulation ritual either.)

The Handmaids are also required to wear a bizarre red costume and a weird white wimple. I guess peripheral vision is also off limits.

Offred and the other handmaids in this tale are stripped of their names, their identities, their possessions, and their families. Literally, their names are changed from things like “Katie” and “Sandy” and “Lauren” to Of-insert-husband-here. So like, assuming my weasely husband was my “master,” I’d no longer be Katie, but Ofjim.  They are treated as breeding stock and denied even the right to READ. Literally. The handmaids are in charge of some of the market duties and the new society has gone so far as to replace shop signs with pictograms to keep women from reading. KEEPING WOMEN FROM READING!!!  The horror!!!

Thanks, Margaret Atwood, Children of the Corn hadn’t quite scared me enough. Just add the scariest cult EVER to the mix. Margaret Atwood is a completely amazing writer, and also Canadian. Politically, at least from my limited (seriously limited, I hate politics) understanding, Canada tends to be a bit more liberal policy-wise than the USA. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that Atwood is quite liberal ideologically either.  In fact, there’s mention in the book of an “underground female-road,” that spirits oppressed women from “Gilead” into Canada. Don’t worry, Ms. Atwood, I’m not offended that you made my home country into a scary dystopia. The book was too awesome to take offense. Anyway, this book was written in the 80s and Atwood was freaked out by the rise of the televangelist, who are often quite traditional when it comes to women’s roles. I can’t really blame her for being a little afraid of televangelists. I find Jack Van Impe quite frightening, myself.

People listen to that guy. They like send him money and believe him when he says ‘robits’ will bring about the end times…

This post is not about politics though. It’s not about religion either. I’m also not saying that televangelists want to machine-gun Congress and impose theocratic rule. I’m totally NOT CONDEMNING anyone’s universal right to believe in what they hold to be true… Unless what they hold to be true means that I don’t get to read, because I’m NOT okay with that. Seriously NOT OKAY with that. (Apologies to anyone who reads this who happens to love Jack Van Impe. You’re entitled. It’s just he makes funny faces that make for amusing screen caps. And he pronounces “robot” funny. I have a very animated face as well. It’s a good thing I’m not on TV.)

Have any of you bookworms read The Handmaid’s Tale? What did you think of it?

39 Responses to “Books That Scare Me: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood”

  1. didibooksenglish

    I read this book at least twice. Yeah I get it scary, although I did enjoy this one. I like the way Margaret Atwood makes her characters so multidimesional in this dystopian world. I also loved the slight science-fiction angle of this novel. I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood. Have you read The Robber Bride? That’s a little scary too.

    • Words for Worms

      Oh yes, I’m an Atwood fiend! The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, The Penelopiad, Bluebeard’s Egg, Oryx and Crake, In The Year of The Flood… Although, I think The Handmaid’s Tale is still my favorite..

  2. Tilly Bud - The Laughing Housewife

    I loved it. I’ve read it a couple of times. I love reading dystopian future tales, so I’m definitely a fan of the book.

    I think its strength lies in the warning that, if we are not careful, this could happen to us. Scary indeed.

  3. Rhian

    The Handmaid’s Tale is a great story, well built. Atwood does a great job of revealing how the US moved from here to there. The society of Gilead that she has created is very complete and consistent and has all the elements you would expect of a totalitarian society, e.g. isolation, control of information, fear.
    I can see how this book would be scary if you lived in a country where religion played a prominent role, particularly in politics. I don’t live in such a country thankfully.

    • Words for Worms

      It sure gives me the creeps… But I don’t want to come across like I think religion is a bad thing. It can be an awesome thing- religious groups do some kickass charity work and stuff. My husband is rather fond of saying, “Everything is fine in moderation. Except for heroin.” I guess that’s my religious philosophy. Fine in moderation, but quit before you destroy modern society.

      • Rhian

        After I posted I then thought of at least one totalitarian regime that clamped down on religion, so it’s not about religion per se. I guess the time to be scared is when the prevailing ideology (religious or otherwise) doesn’t allow for freedom of thought, or belief, or expression.

        • Words for Worms

          I whole-heartedly agree! What is that my high school history teacher used to say? “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Your comments are so well thought out- I feel like a cretin responding to them :).

  4. The Waiting

    I have never read The Handmaid’s Tale but it’s been on my to-read list for several months. This post was just the push I needed to bump it to the front of the line! I am looking forward to reading it.

    • Words for Worms

      Excellent! I’m certain you’ll love it. Whenever people find out that I’m a big bookworm, this is always like the first book I shove in their hands and insist they read. So far nobody has come back and told me they hated it, but that could be because I’M TERRIFYING. Oh that didn’t fool you? Yeah. Me neither. Sigh.

  5. Leah

    I loved this book! It was scary how easily the cult was able to take power — and how believable it was that a group could overthrow the government and take away women’s rights this way. I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to find out one day, “Oh, you can’t own property anymore ’cause you’re a lady. And you’re not allowed to read. Also, we’re taking you away from your family and giving you to some other man, and you will have to bear his children, and you will never see your daughter again or even find out what happened to her.” I don’t have a husband or child (thank goodness — I’m only 22!), but it is such a scary idea that a group of people could so easily take away everything I loved, and I would be powerless to do anything about it. Creepy.

    One thing that really struck me about this book were the ideas about “freedom to” vs. “freedom from.” Before, Offred had the “freedom to” wear whatever she liked, marry the man she loved, read books, etc, but she was in danger of sexual harassment and assault. Under the new regime, losing her “freedom to” self expression means she has “freedom from” unwanted sexual attention because women have been de-sexualized (they must wear a uniform that completely obscures their forms, sex is not an erotic act, etc). The idea that we must choose one or the other is scary. Why can’t we be free to dress how we like and engage in relationships however we choose and still be treated with respect as people rather than sexual objects?

    • Words for Worms

      Amen, Leah. Actually, I’ve heard some Mulsim women argue that they feel protected from leering eyes when they wear the headscarf. I mean, if you want to wear your headscarf or whatever for religious purposes, then by all means, do so! It just makes me sad that women feel the need to hide. Humans are tricky. I don’t think there will ever be a perfect middle ground. Sigh.

      • Leah

        I think woman has her own personal comfort level when it comes to covering her body. Some enjoy showing a lot of skin. Others, like me, are most comfortable dressing modestly. Yet others, as you mentioned, prefer to cover their bodies completely. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of those, but I wish women didn’t feel the need to hide their bodies for safety reasons.

  6. Meg

    Love love LOVE The Handmaid’s Tale though my favorite Atwood is The Blind Assassin. I read The Handmaid’s Tale in English class senior year (I had a kick-ass teacher) and it was instrumental in me starting to think critically about religion and politics.

    • Words for Worms

      Your favorite Atwood is the Blind Assassin? I have to admit, that may be my least favorite, although it’s one of the most celebrated. I got a bit lost in the story within a story. Nobody can rock a dystopia like Atwood can though. Have you read Oryx & Crake or In The Year of the Flood? There’s supposed to be a third book in the series and I’m anxiously awaiting its release!

  7. Jessica

    I’m very glad that, even though it scared you, you liked this book. I read it several years ago and it just knocked my socks off. While it was terrifying, it also reminded me that life is not like that right now, and I should be very grateful.

    • Words for Worms

      Oh yes, I absolutely love this book! I’ve read it more than once, which says a lot because I usually am on a quest to gorge myself on as much as the literary world has to offer me. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but I didn’t know how to tackle it. I figured the cautionary scary Halloween tactic would be appropriate. That, and I can’t sleep if I read Stephen King so I needed to get creative with my take on fear!

  8. susanpen

    I read this book many years ago, but it still resonates with me. It really changed my view on religion and politics. It wasn’t the very first time I had thought about the division of church and state, or women’s place in the world. When I read it I was in college and was taking a few women studies courses so of course the oppression of women in the novel was what I focused on.
    Today it is even more of a cautionary tale. And it scares the crap out of me.

    • Words for Worms

      I was a women’s studies minor in college. This book was one of the first we read in my first women in literature class. Funny story- you know how the Adam’s rib story is used as an explanation for women’s “inferiority”? I absolutely REFUSED to have that reading at my wedding. And if “obey” had been in the vows, I’d have refused that too!

    • Words for Worms

      What’s funny about this book though, is that the women already know how to read. So they just try to take the words out of everything. But reading isn’t something you just forget. I guess they were hoping to breed the reading out of the next generation. So not cool.

  9. Mandy B.

    I haven’t read any Atwood yet. The Handmaid’s Tale sounds like an excellent starting place for me. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Also, thanks for including the ever entertaining and creepy Jack Van Impe. I spent many a night watching him with my parents back when they were into reading those Left Behind book. Remember those?

    • Words for Worms

      Hi Mandy! I love Atwood, and I think The Handmaid’s Tale is her work with the widest appeal, so it’s definitely the place to start! 🙂 I couldn’t leave out Jack Van Impe! He’s my favorite televangelist. So animated! I never read the Left Behind books, but I remember them being big amongst the WWJD bracelet crowd! (Remember the WWJD bracelets? Back in the days before rubber wristbands, there were nylon embroidered bracelets! Someday I will explain that to a child and feel old.)

  10. jane

    I just read this book, and am having nightmares. It is the scariest book I have ever read. I read it. All in a day. I hope this fear goes away soon, I haven’t been this frightened of anything since the flying monkeys on the.wizard of oz at age 5. Great bookbit the nightmares can go

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